Happy Training Camp Day!
It’s the beginning of a new season and like the start of a new school year, expectations and hopes are high. Players will make the “we’re going all the way” predictions and fans will take to social media to declare that this is the year their squad goes to the Super Bowl – everyone will be sporting rose-colored glasses. But the reality is, there’s nothing rose-colored about training camp. It’s hot, the two-a-days are exhausting and the pressure of performing at your top-level to keep or steal a spot on the final roster is unimaginable. Every man on the field is important and everybody’s performance during training camp will be scrutinized, but the performance of these five players will be crucial to the success of Carolina in 2015.
With the sudden retirement of Jonathan Martin, there’s arguable no player who has more riding on him than Michael Oher. After several disappointing seasons, the question will be whether his latest stop will be his greatest. Oher said in May that he hasn’t felt this good since entering the NFL. That’s something he’ll have to prove on the field. Cam Newton spent much of last year running for his life behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL – anchored by the thankfully departed Byron Bell, but will Oher be any better? For the sake of our new $100 million quarterback and the overall success of the team, I hope so.
Speaking of $100 million quarterbacks…Cam Newton is THE guy and he has nine figures to show you why. Oher may be an important part of Carolina’s success, but the Panthers will only go as far as Newton takes them. After battling through injuries much of last few seasons, Newton is back to 100% and with that health comes expectations. What does a 100% Cam Newton look like? Will he be the type of quarterback who makes everyone on the field better? Has he improved his accuracy? Will he and Kelvin Benjamin pick up where they left off and how long will it take him and rookie Devin Funchess to develop their own chemistry? We know the upside potential is there, now after 4 years in the league, it’s time to put those who question his talent and ability to bed.
With the departure of DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart will finally be the team’s lone feature back. How will he respond? Will he stay healthy? The bottom line is, when the Panthers run the ball well they win. How Stew looks during training camp and his ability to stay off the sideline with injuries will tell us a lot about what his role will be heading into the season. Now that he’s “the man”, will he rush for 1000 yards for the first time since 2009? If the Panthers have hopes of building on last year’s post-season success they’ll need him to.
Dave Gettleman caught quite a bit of slack when he drafted Shaq Thompson in the 1st round, but the versatile defender may be just what the Panthers need. At Washington, Thompson did it all, lining up at linebacker, safety and running back. The assumption is that Shaq is Thomas Davis’ heir apparent, but with little exposure during the offseason (while he finished school) questions still loom. Will he make a seamless transition into Carolina’s already potent linebacker corps – solidifying it as one of the best in the league, or will he struggle and be moved around by coaches in an effort to find his niche? Gettleman and company are hoping it’s not the latter.
What will Newton’s offensive weapons look like? More specifically, what will Devin Funchess look like? In the last two years Dave Gettleman has assimilated the “Twin Towers” of NFL receivers with the drafting of Kelvin Benjamin and Funchess. There were some eyebrows raised with this pick, but Devin impressed coaches with his route running during OTA’s. Will he be a formidable option for Newton behind Greg Olsen and Kelvin Benjamin? Did Gettleman get it right? Will Newton finally have the weapons around him to bolster his success? Only time will tell, but Funchess could go a long way in aiding that.
Who will step up and be Greg Hardy’s permanent replacement. The Kraken is officially gone, and while he was a very important part of Carolina’s top 3 defense two years ago, the Panthers have moved on. The question now is, who will step up and officially take his place? Will it be Frank Alexander, who showed flashes of potential prior to his suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse code? How about Kony Ealy, the Panther’s second round pick from a year ago, who played in 15 games last season and registered 4 sacks? Or will it be veteran Mario Addison who will be looking to build on his best season as pro last year? Having good rushers is essential to an elite defense and one of these guys will have to step up and be the man to compliment Charles Johnson.